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Economic Development Department — Keep Austin Saucy

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Austin’s economic development department is protecting the diverse businesses keeping the city’s culture alive.

By Brianna Caleri, Photos by Kylie Birchfield

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From l to r: Director Veronica Briseño, Deputy Director Sylnovia Holt-Rabb and Assistant Director Susana Carbajal

Talk to anyone who knew Austin in the ’80s. In the past four decades, the population has nearly tripled. It’s been just long enough that those who stayed have to spin yarns to their Austin-born children and grandchildren about an adolescent city, barely bigger than present-day Corpus Christi. They chuckle or shake heads at their colleagues from New York and Los Angeles. Reminding them, “It wasn’t always like this.”

So many residents left as the outsiders flowed in that Austinites born here are reluctantly saddled with the moniker “unicorn.”

With so much outside influence rushing in, Austinites have had to defend their collective identity. Local businesses have had to compete with fads and chains from both coasts. Helping prop up those local businesses, the city’s economic development department is here to ensure they can expand without diluting the landscape’s essential character or leaving communities behind. It operates in six divisions—cultural arts, global business expansion, heritage tourism, music and entertainment, redevelopment and small business. Each division emphasizes the importance of maintaining a unique and diverse identity.

Three Women

Three women guard Austin’s cultural heritage on the department’s executive team. Director Veronica Briseño and Deputy Director Sylnovia Holt-Rabb have spent 20 years or more with the city. Learning how it works inside and out. Assistant Director Susana Carbajal, the 2020 addition to the executive team, brings know-how from finance and federal government. She also brings her own decade of Austin government experience. All three bring a natural edge: as moms, they tap into an endless lineage of passing culture down. As moms of color, they work to protect every voice and offer every opportunity. Through all its growing pains, Austin will make them proud.

Veronica Briseño

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How did you inherit your business sense?
I inherited my passion for public service from my dad. My business sense was inherited from my mom, who worked her way up from a receptionist to a senior manager at Valero Energy.

Who would you like to pass it on to?
The next generation. The young minds that can encapsulate the importance of supporting our local economy and run with it. My goal is that [my two boys]are raised with the value of community.

Which part of Austin really reflects your personality?
Our eclecticness. We are a Renaissance city, and I relate to that. Everything we do in economic development are areas I prioritize in my life: creativity, local business and community development space.

Veronica Briseño sits at City Hall, eyes on a bench made of rainbow neon tubes. Pedestrians smile at the fluorescent oddity, and so does Briseño, at their simple joy. The bench, built by the same artists as the striped ATX sign outside Whole Foods (which became a tourist destination of its own merit), is just one of the few pieces Briseño visits. She also loves the stately owl sculpture in the Second Street District. Mourns the loss by vandalism of the “Ganador,” a playful grackle in a luchador’s mask.

Who We Are As a City

“The beauty of art is that it speaks to who we are as a city,” says Briseño. “It preserves that spirit and…it brings joy.”

As Austin’s economic development director, Briseño oversees initiatives that put public art on the street and in City Hall, redevelop neighborhoods and keep all the department’s objectives in check. While earning her master’s at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Briseño started as the city council agenda coordinator. Without specifically pledging a lifelong career, she took opportunities as they came. As cities have no shortage of projects to work on. After 21 years, she only has two to go until she is eligible for retirement. But she isn’t planning on winding down anytime soon.

Be Invigorated!

For now, Briseño is invigorated by opportunities to ask her two decades’ worth of Austin allies for help. Every day, the executive team checks their calendars together, parse out a pandemic-size workload and work around their own newly homeschooled children. It’s nothing like working at City Hall, but the three are mindful about giving one another space. That kind of sensitivity—an understanding of what each one of them carries—is what Briseño hopes the team can bring to the city as three women of color. In hiring, she’s started asking about equity from a more personal perspective. Hoping to find others who will not only champion equity, but relate to it.

Putting those ideals in action, Briseño is excited to work on the Colony Park Sustainable Community. Located in Northeast Austin and spanning over 200 acres, the area is under redevelopment for better sustainability. While providing affordable housing and maintaining the community beloved by its very involved inhabitants. She explains it’s not about building a new neighborhood. It’s about bringing an old one up to speed without leaving any residents behind.

“To me that’s heritage,” says Briseño. “We want to make sure we provide a way for people to stay in the neighborhoods they love and enjoy them.”

Sylnovia Holt-Rabb

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How did you inherit your business sense?
In high school I ran my baking business and after college had a bookkeeping business. I attended one of the best business schools in the country, Florida A&M University School of Business and Industry.

Who would you like to pass it on to?
I would love to pass my work ethic, business acumen and servant leader qualities to my son. He watches me do the #peopleswork. It’s a term coined by a previous EDD employee, and I use it every day.

Which part of Austin really reflects your personality?
Grant AME Worship Center welcomed a transplant in over 20 years ago. Huston-Tillotson, an HBCU (historically Black college and university) is similar to my alma mater. There’s nothing like an HBCU homecoming.

Sylnovia Holt-Rabb won’t say Austin is weird. She will say it has a great “secret sauce” that simmers as it keeps its cultural memories alive. A transplant from Florida who, nevertheless, started working for the city of Austin just one year after her current colleague Veronica Briseño, Holt-Rabb had a lot to learn about the area. When she started with Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, the headquarters dropped her right in the middle of the African American Cultural Heritage District on Eleventh Street.

There, she learned about the 1928 Master Plan. Which established a “negro district” to aid in segregating the city’s residential areas. Austinites now may recognize the area and the organization that preserves it as Six Square, after the six square miles the district had covered. Holt-Rabb is proud to have maintained involvement in the area 20 years later, as it preserves and develops Black culture in a contractual relationship with the city of Austin.

Preserving Culture

As deputy director of the economic development department, Holt-Rabb supervises the cultural arts, music and entertainment and heritage tourism divisions. Overseeing such a wide range of initiatives, she understands the variety of approaches a city can take to preserving its heritage. It can happen by geography. As it did in Six Square or the Rainey Street area, previously the historically Hispanic Palm District. It can also happen by industry, as the city is exploring within hospitality. Holt-Rabb points out a promising change that, two years ago, allocated the full 15% hotel occupancy tax to heritage initiatives. It can even happen during legislative recesses or on hold with the city phone line; the music division features local musical artists in both spaces.

Holt-Rabb believes in preservation through immersion. She learned about the city by moving in. Got involved in the community through working with nonprofits. She grew accustomed to finding balance and making hard decisions as a single mother. Following metrics outlined in a 2016 cultural tourism plan, she is passionately ensuring new generations of Austinites have a culture to assimilate into that can’t be overwritten.

Holt-Rabb concludes, “As long as you honor [the past]and you keep…connecting with people that get born and raised here, I don’t think you would ever water it down.”

Susana Carbajal

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How did you inherit your business sense?
From all the women in my family, of course! My sisters taught me to dream big, my mother taught me to never give up and my grandmothers taught me to be creative and resourceful.

Who would you like to pass it on to?
Every business owner in Austin who is wondering and worrying what tomorrow will bring.  I say to them “Let’s dream big together!  How can we use this opportunity to transform the business landscape of today to create something bigger and better that serves all of Austin in an equitable and sustainable way?”

Which part of Austin really reflects your personality?
The North Lamar International District. I love to travel and learn about cultures through art and food. I can visit businesses there and remember the tastes, sights and sounds of Latin America, Asia and the Mediterranean.

In 2019, Austin-Bergstrom Airport was Fodor’s runner-up for Best U.S. Airport. With a great selection of local restaurants, an uncrowded security process and the occasional live music performance, it’s a reassuring and very Austin place to spend an hour or two waiting for a flight. Susana Carbajal, the newest addition to the economic development executive team, spent 10 years working on it.

Although travelers may not consider it while dragging bags and kids to the gate, the airport is a government entity owned and operated by the city of Austin. As assistant director of business development, Carbajal worked on everything from tenant management, to marketing, to governmental relations. Her two former career paths—in federal government and commercial law—converged to make her a great candidate to manage Austin’s first and last impression to visitors.

Building a Small Business Community

“I think by building a small business community that is growing,” Carbajal says, “we’re able to provide our visitors, whether for leisure or for business…the local flare of Austin.”

In Carbajal’s first year as assistant director of economic development, her job is not so different. She focuses on the small business, redevelopment and global business expansion divisions. In short, she emphasizes, the team builds “complete communities.”

Not only do they represent a general Austin-ness to outsiders. They honor the residents and make sure that local flavor is sustainably produced.

One underutilized area in proposals for redevelopment is the St. John’s site. The former location of a Home Depot and Chrysler dealership on I35 sits abandoned. The 19 acres await local businesses and creative groups, performance spaces and splashes of green to break up the concrete. Most importantly, the redesign must include affordable housing to avoid pricing out its predominantly Latinx and Black neighbors.

The Team

The team also mitigates the risk of gentrification by ensuring community members are present for every step of the process. From seminars to meetings with the mayor. Businesses of all sizes throughout Austin can participate in trainings by the department, whether or not they are involved in redevelopment areas. The outreach even works on a global scale. Bringing Egyptian fashion designers to Austin for a new exchange program announced this fall. A quickly expanding Austin has known for decades that people will come. But Carbajal is making sure the city remembers how to reach out.


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